As a scholar of cultural performance, Jodi Kanter, associate professor of theater, wanted to explain how presidential libraries generate narratives about individual presidents, historical events and who we are as Americans.
Her latest book, Presidential Libraries as Performance: Curating American Character from Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush, examines the funding, setting, architecture and exhibitions of presidential museums as performances and argues that these libraries not only shape our understanding of the president’s character, but create radically divergent roles for American citizens in public life.
“I believe that it can be helpful to think about the museums as shows of a sort, with carefully constructed characters, selective dramatization of events, and cues to their audiences about what is expected of them by way of response,” Kanter says. “I think seeing them this way can liberate both the museum designer and the visitor from the expectation that the library tells the ‘true’ story and get us engaged in discovering how many stories it’s possible for the library to evoke.”
Throughout the book, Kanter considers the moments in the presidents’ lives that the 13 extant presidential libraries choose to interpret––-and not to interpret––-and how the libraries differ in their approaches to common subjects in the presidential narrative. Identifying the limited number of strategies the libraries currently use to represent the diversity of the American experience and American character, she offers concrete suggestions for reinventing and reshaping the practices of museum professionals and visitors.
"The book is written for people interested in American history and how it is told," Kanter says. "This includes history buffs, museum professionals, political scientists and culture watchers."